Why Ayrton Senna remains the greatest racer in history

Today would have been Brazilian Formula One legend Ayrton Senna’s 53rd birthday. In many eyes, including today’s greats and the heroes of old, he ranks as the undisputed greatest of all-time. His tragic accident on May 1, 1994, sent shock waves around the world. His funeral in his hometown of Sao Paulo drew hundreds of thousands and was televised worldwide to millions. He was far more than a racecar driver; to many, he was a god. But how did this curly-haired racecar driver come to be cherished so passionately?

Ayrton Senna’s impact is fascinating. Part of it stems from the positive light he brought to Brazil in a time where the country had little. That, in itself, meant he was a national treasure, resembling, if not surpassing, soccer legend, Pelé. That feeling, however, transcended past Brazilian shores and into the hearts of people worldwide. Individuals who cared not about racing, knew all about Senna.

He had a magic on track that captivated his audience.“Senna made the car dance," says former F1 driver John Watson. "He did things with the car that I hadn’t even thought about, let alone put in to practice.” Watson added “after witnessing this, I knew that my time as racecar driver was effectively over.”


His speed was unquestioned. He could take lackluster cars, like his McLaren MP4/8 from 1993, and achieve victory by nearly a lap at the rain-soaked Grand Prix at Donington. In 1992, he held off Nigel Mansell in the superior Williams to clench his record sixth win on the streets of Monaco. And when he had the car to beat, he was untouchable. In his all-too-short career, he won three Formula One World titles, and qualified on pole position more than 40 percent of the time.

It was not just immense speed that separated Senna. He had a “win at all cost” demeanor that couldn’t help but excite. He was known for crashing in his early years but, as racing rival Martin Brundle put it, that was all in an effort to “get in your head.” Brundle explained how Senna would stick his nose into a gap to see if you’d turn in. Senna wouldn’t budge, and if you turned, he crashed into you. Eventually, drivers learned that when you saw the bright yellow helmet in your mirrors, you would give way or risk an accident. It’s a risky game to play, and a non-too endearing one at that. But, in a Dale Earnhardt kind of way, it was a spectacle that riveted.

His life had an unwavering focus on racing, to the detriment of everything else. He realized that, to be the best, he must commit to a level never before ventured. He became the fittest driver in the paddock, the most aggressive, the fastest and, of course, the most devoted. It was this level of dedication that led engineers to pull their hair out, as Senna would have them at the track hours after everyone else had left.

It was also this attitude that brought them back the next day; despite the workload, they appreciated his unswerving focus to the cause. McLaren team owner Ron Dennis said “it’s easy to accept that he’s hard on the team because he’s so hard on himself. But we’re not here to have fun. This is a serious business.” Senna demanded the best, but in return, he promised victory.

To those who never witnessed him, Senna’s ruthless nature doesn’t sound like the quality of worldwide hero. Senna offset that characteristic, however, with his deep, compassionate kindness. If a fellow racer crashed heavily, he would be by their side. It would affect him deeply. He risked life and limb on many occasions, stopping his car in the middle of the racetrack, to tend to an injured driver. Using his popularity, he set up a foundation to raise money for underprivileged children. This was perhaps the only thing more important to him than winning; Senna alluded, on occasions, to his quest for victory being a catalyst to achieving his greater goals.

He was a deeply spiritual man who often claimed God to be riding with him. That scared many, and garnered negative criticism from the media, but when you watched him behind the wheel, it’s tough to argue that something wasn’t different.

There have been many racers with incredible talent: Michael Schumacher, Alain Prost, A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti come to mind. None hold the allure of Senna. This Brazilian racer from Sao Paulo exuded something we have never before seen, and likely never will again. He was special, in a way that is impossible to truly articulate.

The video below is from Top Gear, and is one of the best pieces I have seen short of the fine documentary "Senna." In the case of Ayrton Senna, pictures speak louder than words.

Photo: AP Images